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Wednesday, 14 September 2005
Page: 51

Senator CARR (12:54 PM) —I raise today a matter of crucial importance to Australia’s future: the future of our cities. On Monday, there was a report presented in the House of Representatives by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage entitled Sustainable cities. The report dealt with matters of extreme importance to the future of Australia’s urban dwellers. It detailed the serious environmental challenges that face our cities. However, being a bipartisan report, it fell far short of what is required to address the Howard government’s failure to engage in the future of Australian cities—not only in relation to environmental issues but, more broadly, in terms of the liveability of our suburbs and the manner in which our society is organised to ensure that everyone gets a fair go.

About 80 per cent of Australians now live in 41 cities. Sydney and Melbourne alone are home to almost eight million people. Our cities are growing fast and there is a great deal for us to do to ensure that they remain places in which people want to live. Unfortunately, under the nine long years of the Howard government, there has been a lack of coherent national policy on urban planning and development. The development, security and amenity of our cities must become a national priority for the government of Australia.

Nothing illustrates more starkly the need for national leadership in urban policy than the tragic events that have unfolded in the American city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I want to add my voice to those expressing their sympathy and sorrow over those events, particularly the human costs, which have been so terrible. The last thing the opposition wants to do in these circumstances is try to score cheap political points from such terrible human suffering. But I do want to draw attention to some of the lessons that might be drawn from this natural and humanitarian tragedy. There are many, and they are very pertinent.

The fundamental issue that arises from the film footage shown since the hurricane struck is the gross inequality that emerges in American society. Who is it who are left behind, who face death, disease and the appalling living conditions? It is the black people, the poor people and the working people of the United States. That is an example of how the market has gone mad—a situation whereby fundamental human rights are denied to so many people in a market driven society such as that of the United States.

There is a basic issue of public infrastructure. We saw in the United States that the Bush administration, despite the clear warnings from experts, including many within the government, cut spending on vital flood containment measures in and around New Orleans. For instance, federal spending on flood control in south-east Louisiana has been cut by almost half since 2001. The levees had been maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. They were not able to do their job properly. They asked for $US27 million for this year for hurricane control work. They were granted $US6 million. An amount of $US14 billion for a longer term project to restore the marshes surrounding the city was slashed to $US570 million.

The Bush government’s priorities were about diverting moneys and support away from protecting American cities through infrastructure maintenance and development and towards the war in Iraq and their so-called war on terror. If you were a black, poor person in New Orleans who was left behind, you would know what the war on terror means. There could surely be nothing more terrifying than being stuck in an attic as the water continues to rise and there is no-one there to help, the public sector having completely broken down and the private sector having abandoned people to their fate. The United States government’s negligence in terms of its responsibilities to fund public infrastructure has seen hundreds of thousands of mostly poor, black working people in the United States being forced to confront that dreadful price.

We have seen in Australia that the federal government has no commitment to infrastructure development and renewal in our cities. The Howard government has made sure that it is as far away as possible from the action when it comes to infrastructure development in our urban areas. Labor, through its Better Cities policy and before that—going right back to the Whitlam period—with the Department of Urban and Regional Development, has a longstanding commitment to ensuring that the Commonwealth government faces up to its responsibilities when it comes to the development of Australian cities.

New Orleans dramatically shows us why it is so important that there be a restoration of national policy on urban development. What we have seen in New Orleans is that cities can be the site of appalling poverty. They can be incubators for social inequality. We have seen that a huge disparity exists between those who are wealthy and those who are poor. We see an enormous rift developing in American society. There are people who are desperately impoverished: those who are unemployed, those who are black and those who do not have access to the power of money, which brings access to the marketplace. We saw all of those fault lines exposed through the recent events in New Orleans.

The issues of unemployment and the scourge of poverty in our cities have to be faced up to squarely in this country as well. Moves have to be made to eliminate them. The Commonwealth government has a leading role to play in ensuring that those challenges are faced. Educational opportunities have to be improved so that everybody, no matter where they live, no matter what their postcode, has a genuine chance for a meaningful life and has an opportunity to share in the prosperity that a few people have in this country. There has to be an integrated approach to urban policy on the part of the national government, and it has to be able to work with the states and with local government to ensure that we do not have a situation where ghettos develop in this country and where we have poor people condemned by governments to poor services.

I am not suggesting that at this time Australian society is as bad as the United States in terms of social gulfs. But we are in grave danger if we do not take action to ensure that the social and economic divisions in the fabric of our society are not repaired. We should not provide opportunities for those inequalities to develop as they have in the United States. I am concerned that in some areas of Australia all the signs are there. There is evidence of social disintegration occurring. There is evidence of the social tensions that occur after such neglect. There are, for instance, areas within Sydney where that is all too apparent.

In terms of urban policy, there is a need to ensure that there is social cohesion and that there are genuine opportunities for education, for training and for jobs. There needs to be transport and decent and affordable housing for every single citizen in this country. We have to make sure that those who are privileged and those who enjoy the capacity to live in expensive suburbs are not the only ones who get a fair go. There have to be means by which we can ensure that there is a genuine commitment by the Australian government to give everyone a fair go.

Recent reports suggest that Australian cities are exposed to the threat of natural disaster. I would hate to think what would happen in this country if such an event occurred. I trust that we would not see a repeat of what has occurred in the United States. Cities are large and complex entities and environments. Huge numbers can be affected when an urban disaster such as a flood, a cyclone or a bushfire occurs or when a terrorist attack is visited upon them. Urban planning has a part to play. Cities have to be built so that disaster plans are integrated into the management of our cities. Disaster plans need to be integrated not just at a vertical level but horizontally and at all levels of government. That means that the Commonwealth government has a national responsibility to fill. It has a leadership role to perform.

What really troubles me here is that our cities and urban areas around Australia are growing at a phenomenal rate, particularly along our coastal fringes. It is likely that a quarter of the nation’s population growth will occur in south-east Queensland over the next few years. There is a similar situation in south Perth, where there has been massive growth in the numbers of people moving there. It strikes me that under those circumstances the Commonwealth has a direct responsibility to assist the states in ensuring that people have proper access to services and facilities to ensure that the opportunities for a reasonable standard of living can be maintained.

In this country we have a serious underinvestment in our infrastructure, and that is a serious underinvestment in the future of this country. What we have, on the other hand, is a government that sees infrastructure spending as essentially an opportunity for pork-barrelling. Regional Partnerships, for instance, is an example of that. We have no minister for housing and we have no minister for urban development in this government. We have seen no major coordinated infrastructure program for our urban areas.

Cities are the engine room of Australia’s economic development and growth. But we have had nothing but neglect from this government. This government does not see this as an important issue and believes that the market will be able to resolve whatever problems emerge. The evidence on that matter is clear: there is no doubt whatsoever that one of the pressing problems facing Australian cities is the fact that we do not have the sort of support from the public sector that is required. By that I mean that the Commonwealth government is failing in its obligations.

You only have to look at the issue of housing affordability. Ordinary Australians are deeply worried that their kids will not be able to afford to buy a house in the cities and suburbs in which they live and in which they grew up. They have a growing sense that people are losing out in the race to ensure that they are able to maintain their living standards. Reserve Bank figures show that the average house in Sydney now costs some 10 years wages, compared to seven years in Melbourne and five or six in other cities. That is in marked contrast to what we saw in Sydney a decade ago. The amount of time it takes to buy a house in Sydney and Melbourne and most of the other big cities in this country has doubled over the last 10 years.

We now have affordability rates that are becoming quite shameful. This affects how people live, where they live; it affects their life opportunities. We have a situation here where whole groups of people—not just those who are concerned about the weakest members of our community but also those with private sector interests, building industry professionals, welfare organisations and various others—are all saying now that the Commonwealth government has an obligation which is currently not being met. The Howard government is alone in turning its back on these issues.

As our cities expand, the sustainable use of water, energy and land is a growing challenge. Cities, and city households, are responsible for a large proportion of our national energy and water consumption. The Howard government shows no interest in these issues. For nine long years the Howard government has neglected our major infrastructure needs, and it is completely ignoring the urban infrastructure which could improve our cities and ensure that we are able to enjoy our current standard of living into the future. The Howard government does not even have a minister responsible for those issues. If you want to talk to the government about those issues, you have to go to a plethora of departments to try to get your message across. (Time expired)